Cannes 2008 diary: 'Of Time and the City'

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'Of Time and the City' is a poetic masterpiece from Britain's Terence Davies, argues Geoff Andrew

While Cannes Official Competition entrants are still, for the most part, tending to impress rather than overwhelm – there’s plenty of perfectly good fare (Walter Salles’ ‘Linha da Passe’, Matteo Garrone’s ‘Gomorra’, the Dardennes ‘Lorna’s Silence’), but no masterpiece as yet – the out-of-competition strands are producing some gems: two such in Un Certain Regard are Raymond Depardon’s documentary about French farmers (‘La Vie Moderne’) and Andreas Dresen’s tale of elderly adultery (‘Cloud 9’). But the one truly great movie to emerge so far has been Terence Davies’s ‘Of Time and the City’; it’s not only this writer who considers it some kind of masterpiece.

Davies has waited far too long for financing since ‘The House of Mirth’, made eight years ago, and even when the money came his way it was a relative pittance as one of three commissions designed to mark Liverpool’s brief period as European Capital of Culture.

Not, you’d have thought, the most fertile offer to come Davies’s way, but, master of the cinematic art that he is, he responded to the challenge magnificently, making the most of a constrained subject matter and limited resources. What he came up with could have been overly specific and utterly self-indulgent – a reminiscence/meditation on his own experiences of and relationship to Liverpool – but this ‘documentary’ is as personal, as universal in its relevance, and as gloriously cinematic as anything he has done.

Basically, the film consists of archive footage of Liverpool and the Merseyside area, spliced together with some new footage shot by Davies, and juxtaposed with a soundtrack that includes Davies’s own voice – reading his own words and those of others – fragmented recordings of others’ voices, a bit of radio and an astonishing broad array of music.

It could all have been dull as ditchwater, but with Davies’ proffering TS Eliot and Emily Dickinson, Round the Horne and Grand National coverage, Mahler and the Hollies, Peggy Lee and composers this music-lover had never even heard of (not to mention a few wonderfully irreverent jokes), and using them to put the images into all manner of rich and strange perspectives, the film is quite, quite magical from start to finish. It’s not really like anything else – except, of course, Davies’s other films – which is probably why Cannes director Thierry Frémaux wisely chose not to show it as part of the Official Competition.

Watching the film, you realise that Britain has no other filmmaker to match Davies in terms of his purely cinematic sensibility. Fine as our other far-from-inconsiderable big names are, it’s hard to imagine any of them creating sheer filmic poetry as may be found here. Davies’s juxtapositions of music and image, especially, are consistently audacious, original and exhilarating, whether the compositions reflect and reinforce each other or whether they make more complex by way of superbly sharp irony.

It’s hard, on paper, properly to evoke the effect of watching Liverpool’s architectural transformation to a city of soulless ’60s high-rises while hearing Peggy Lee singing ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ – suffice to say that countless feelings, thoughts and memories come to mind. And this is above all a film about memory, and time’s passing, and ageing, and loss; it’s about Liverpool only in so far as it's what Davies recalls from his early years, and what he left behind, even though it will always remain deeply embedded in his make-up.

In the end, like all films with something that speaks to us all, ‘Of Time and the City’ is wholly specific in its origins. It’s about Davies, it’s about Liverpool, it’s about Britain and how it’s changed in the last century, and it is about what it means to be a sentient, intelligent – and, mercifully, in Davies’s case, witty – human being. O tempora, o mores… Oh, what a magnificently beautiful movie!

Read Cannes review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ here

Read Cannes review of Clint Eastwood's 'The Exchange' here

Read Cannes review of Woody Allen's 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' here

Read our review of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' here

Read our review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read Cannes review of Fernando Meirelles Cannes 2008 opener,' 'Blindness', here

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